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A Glimpse into Our Common Humanity

You, me, and those folks in Sweden and Mozambique.

Key points

  • Hans Rosling's memoir is a real lesson in empathy.
  • Rosling became famous for his cool data presentations, but previously worked on public health in Africa.
  • His stories might make you appreciate your commonalities with people not only in Sweden but also in sub-equatorial Africa.

In my previous post, I talked about Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness.

While Rosling was writing that book about the state of the world, he also wrote a memoir, called How I learned to understand the world.

Rosling wrote both books in his final year of life after he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.

Rosling’s memoir brought a few tears to my eye, and it also activated my empathy module; making me feel a kinship not only with this particular Swedish public health expert but also with the poverty-stricken people he met while he was the only physician serving 385,000 people in Nampala Province in Mozambique.

My colleague Bob Cialdini did research on something he called Basking in Reflected Glory, or taking pride in having some remote association with someone else who is successful (such as having the same birthday as a famous rock guitarist, or coming from the same home town, even though you yourself can’t carry a tune or play a single note on a guitar) (Cialdini, Borden, et al., 1976; Cialdini, DeNicholas, 1989). I took just such an odd pleasure in discovering that Rosling was born in the same year as I was (I was born in June while he was born in July). I also felt some empathy because Rosling was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but had working-class parents who did not themselves go to college. His grandparents, like mine, did not stay in school beyond the primary grades.

Rosling and I were the first in our families to go to university, thanks to the supportive pro-education governments in both countries. Like Rosling, I started out intending to go into medicine, and I even considered working with the Peace Corps, in line with the then-popular notion that people who had grown up during the opportunity revolution should share their good fortune with people in countries that didn’t have quite so much. In my Peace Corps dreams, I imagined myself helping people in Africa.

Flatiron Books / Fair Use Rights
The two books Hans Rosling wrote during his last year of life.
Source: Flatiron Books / Fair Use Rights

But whereas I switched my major from biology to psychology, and shifted to a career doing laboratory studies, Rosling got his degree in medicine and then actually went to work in Africa. His memoir describes some harrowing experiences; running off a muddy road and flipping the car in the middle of the night, working with patients who had carried their dying relatives dozens of miles to his clinic (because no one had a car), watching children and their parents die of diseases that could have been prevented, giving his glasses to a nurse who could not afford a pair of his own, and being thanked by the family of a woman who had died in his care.

What was most impressive about Rosling’s account: Those people in the remote regions of the world, struggling to keep their families alive, sometimes illiterate, sometimes without enough food, are just like you and me.

Rosling has many fascinating stories, but two stand out. He went to a remote beach near Nacala, Mozambique, and expressed regret to his African colleague that the beach was so crowded. His colleague was shocked at Rosling’s comment, noting that in Germany, the beaches were crowded with thousands of families every weekend, yet this beach, near a city with 85,000 people, has only about 20 families enjoying it. Rosling's African colleague looked forward to a day when the people in Mozambique, like the people in Germany, could enjoy their beautiful beaches with their children. In another story, Rosling tells the tale of a group of angry men with machetes who were about to attack him because he wanted to take blood samples from the villagers. He is saved by an elderly woman, who confronts the crowd, and despite never having had a course in biology, explains how so many of their children used to die of diseases like measles that could have been prevented with vaccines. She asks her fellow villagers how they think the vaccines were developed and tells them it is because of "what this man calls 'research.'” The guys with machetes walked away grumbling and the old lady bares her arm to give a blood sample.

Incidentally, I was prompted to see where Rosling had worked in Africa. Nacala, Mozambique is almost due South of Finland, but well south of the equator; if you traveled due West, you’d end up in Brazil and Bolivia, and if you hopped on a boat and headed east, you’d end up on the island of Madagascar.

References

Cialdini, R. B., & De Nicholas, M. E. (1989). Self-presentation by association. Journal of personality and social psychology, 57(4), 626.

Cialdini, R. B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Walker, M. R., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L. R. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 34(3), 366-375.

Rosling, H., & Hargestam, F. (2017). How I learned to understand the world: A memoir. New York: Flatiron Books.

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